Customer Service


Pre-CRM: Relating Before There’s a Relationship

Thousands of people may visit your website every day, but only a fraction of them make it into your CRM system (which enables you to manage and automate relationships, interactions and contact data). What about those visitors who don’t get captured by CRM? How do you count and relate to the vast universe of prospects you know nothing about, but who obviously have some reason to be interested in your products and services?

The simple answer is: You don’t. In the words of comedian and philosopher Louis C.K., “because things that are not can’t be.” You can spend a lot of money on marketing, but unless website visitors are willing to provide their contact details and other information related to their product needs, current Internet technology (including live chat) gives you no way to interact with these potential customers and convert them into active prospects — or at least to get them to cross the chasm from what might be termed “a pre-CRM state” into a lead in your CRM system.

In other words, there’s no way to anticipate a prospect who is not yet entered into your CRM system and build a relationship with them. Obviously, you can’t reach out and interact with potential buyers prior to having any knowledge about them. Or is it so obvious?

Lessons From the Offline World

In the offline world, it’s easy. Prospective customers walk into stores. The proprietors know nothing about them. Sales staff greet them and ask if they have any questions. These initial meetings lead to a process of discovery as the salespersons delve more deeply into the customers’ need states. The customers may be willing to share personal information. Salespersons establish their authority to help the customers make the right choices and build trust and rapport.

Depending on a salesperson’s skills and ability to establish a helpful relationship with a prospective buyer, the result is often a sale.

In the online world, unknown customers are typically herded into CRM corrals, often against their will. They have to give something first (contact and personal information) before they can get something back (information that can help them make a decision from an agent they feel they can trust). That’s the opposite of what happens in the offline world, where merchants give first and gather customer information later.

Often in the online world, customers fall into a rabbit hole of frustrating live chat sessions with anonymous customer service representatives (CSRs) who offer canned, impersonal and often comical responses to complex customer questions. Or, customers are required to fill out and submit contact forms in order to get an answer (or an annoying phone call) hours or days later, rather than at the moment when their need to know is immediate.

When Marketing Doesn’t Stimulate Interest or Need

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to grow your business: Sell more products to your existing customer base; or capture new business from potential buyers who have not yet become customers.

For many types of products and services, marketing can stimulate awareness and create a customer need where one may not have existed before (think smartphones and tablet computers). But marketing can only do so much, particularly for high-value products and services people buy infrequently and for reasons driven not by marketing but by milestones, events or need states in their lives.

Someone’s roof blows off during a tornado. The miles are adding up on the car. Retirement is approaching and with it the need to get serious about investments, banking or financial planning services. Or someone is contemplating a dream cruise to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Prospective customers may be in these need states only once every few years, or once a decade, or even once in a lifetime. And getting their attention while they are in these states often requires early and meaningful interactions with seasoned, professional salespeople, not automated Web interactions or simplistic live chat sessions.

The irony is that websites and CRM systems often hide these real live sales people — who are still the greatest asset for many of types of businesses — behind a curtain of automation that prevents potential customers from getting meaningful responses early in their deliberations. Early, when they are searching for information and have the greatest number of questions, and early, when sales professionals can engage customers in a meaningful dialogue, thus increasing the potential for a successful outcome at the end of the sales cycle, however long or complex it may be.

This curtain of Web automation “hides our customers from us,” wrote Robert Williams in this publication nearly four years ago. “We can’t tell what they really want as they click through our Web pages, as they search for information, or as they get halfway through filling out an online form.

“While we can gather statistics and analyze, draw conclusions, and decide what we think our customers want, we have not really engaged them,” he continued. “They do not fully understand what we are offering, and we cannot tell if they are satisfied or simply frustrated and confused. More importantly, we haven’t taken full advantage of the opportunity to interact with them when they are there, at our site, just waiting for us to really engage.”

How to Get the Attention of Pre-CRM Prospects

So how do you really engage your prospects when they are a pre-CRM state and you know virtually nothing about them? Exploiting the possibilities of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, along with tools like live chat certainly help, but these aren’t substitutes for real-time one-to-one interactions between trusted agents and potential customers with questions — interactions based on the customer’s terms rather than terms dictated by whatever technology is in use. But given the state of technology today, is such a thing even possible?

Maybe not completely, but it’s possible to come pretty close. Even today, there are ways to put a “human face” on a company using the very same Internet technology that in the past tended to dehumanize its Web presence. Even today, it’s possible to let customers choose whom to engage with (by presenting them with profiles of a company’s best people), when to engage (by making these profiles easy to find yet nonintrusive), where to engage (by making the profiles portable, so they can function on any website or device) and how to engage (by offering options such as online chat, voice, video chat and email).

It’s not quite the same as greeting customers in the offline world. There is no face-to-face contact or warm handshake, but progress is being made. Through the use of audio and video tools, it will soon be possible to interact with customers in a way that closely mirrors the way we engage them in the offline word: through meaningful one-to-one personal interaction.

These digital tools will help improve initial customer interactions, build pre-CRM relationships, and reinforce the usefulness of CRM by letting sales staff swim upstream to greet the customer in real-time at the moment of interest.

Lief Larson is president and product director of Workface, a technology company that helps businesses market their products and services by promoting their employees' expertise and helping their staff engage with prospects online and in real-time.

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